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10 Questions with Patricia J. Langford, CEO of Dawning Family Services

At the Nonprofit Leadership Center, we believe the best lessons in nonprofit leadership come from nonprofit leaders themselves. Our 10 Questions With Series celebrates and elevates nonprofit and business leaders across the Tampa Bay region each month who are making an enduring impact on our communities. Today, we’re pleased to introduce you to Patricia J. Langford, the CEO of Dawning Family Services (formerly the Alpha House of Tampa).

Patricia J. Langford, CEO of Dawning Family Services in Tampa, Florida

Pat has been at the helm of Dawning Family Services since 2010, responsible for overseeing programs and services for pregnant homeless women and homeless families with minor children. Most recently, she led the organization through a multi-pronged brand transformation and mission expansion, including a physical move and construction of a new shelter.

Pat is an experienced and proactive leader with more than 25 years of experience in the design, management and administration of housing programs and support services for youth and homeless individuals and families and victims of domestic violence.

Here’s what Pat had to share about how to engage today’s donors, what nonprofit leaders should consider before a brand revitalization and the moment that changed her life in 2001.

Q1: As the CEO of Dawning Family Services, tell us about your organization and what drew you to serve this nonprofit.

Pat: Dawning Family Services provides short-term emergency shelter for families with at least one minor child that are seeking refuge from the storm of homelessness. To our knowledge, we are the only known low-barrier and Equal Access Rule compliant family shelter in Hillsborough County. (The Equal Access Rule was established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — HUD — in 2016 that requires shelter owners/operators/managers who receive HUD Community Planning and Development funding to grant equal access to their facilities in accordance with an individual’s gender identity.)

Every family deserves an opportunity to redefine their future. For me, this is all about social justice. That’s a big part of what drew me to Dawning Family Services. Your present situation does not have to define your future. Your future is what you’re willing to work hard to achieve. Our families deserve a shot at success. Moving into our shelter from living in a car or sleeping on a park bench and then quickly moving into permanent housing offers opportunities that so many of us take for granted.

Patricia Langford says that your present situation doesn't have to define your future.

Dawning Family Services recently expanded our services to include families and not just pregnant women and mothers with young children. By expanding our mission to serve entire families, we’re taking a holistic approach to ending homelessness. The families we serve in shelter receive essential services, including case management, financial assistance to quickly move into permanent housing (e.g., benefits, rent, utilities) and post-shelter supportive services to ensure self-sufficiency. We also have two Rapid Re-Housing programs. The first serves clients in our emergency shelter and the second is for families who are on the Hillsborough County’s Coordinated Entry List. Through partnership-building with landlords and property managers, we’ve become adept at finding permanent housing opportunities for families who have the extra challenge of one or more evictions in their history and for those who have non-violent felonies.

Q2: Your organization recently underwent a significant rebranding effort, including a new name, logo and revitalized mission focus. What lessons did you learn from this experience, and what advice would you share with other nonprofits considering an organizational rebrand?

Pat: It’s labor-intensive to take on so much at once, but it’s also exhilarating! In a nutshell, we completely refreshed an organization that has been in the Hillsborough County community for more than 35 years. For other nonprofits considering an identity revitalization, I would recommend the following:

  1. Stay laser-focused on the “what” and the “why” behind your rebrand. What do you hope to accomplish by rebranding? What messages are you trying to convey? Why should you rebrand, and why now?
  2. Allow adequate time for the necessary due diligence when selecting a communications partner/firm. We were incredibly fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time with our rebranding efforts. We met SPARK through our board’s Public Relations Task Force when researching PR firms. SPARK mentioned STOKED, a pro-bono nonprofit rebrand competition. Every year, the SPARK team selects a nonprofit to rebrand for free. A board member completed the STOKED application, and we were overjoyed that they chose us as the 2018 recipient. Although we won the pro-bono competition, SPARK really understood us — who we are, what we do and what we provide.
  3. Ensure your entire organization understands why you are rebranding, the steps along the way and receives communications throughout the process, including your board, staff and supporters.

Q3: Dawning Family Services recently announced a capital campaign to raise $8 million to expand the care and support you provide to the families you serve. As donors’ needs and expectations continue to evolve in our ever-changing world, what do you think are the most important ways to secure major gifts today? 

Pat: I believe nonprofits must provide as many opportunities as possible for individuals in the community to hear about the project and to connect in a way that is personally meaningful to them. Donors need to know how and why families benefit from our unique services and the pressing need to expand our shelter capacity and ancillary services. I want our donors to feel a strong connection to who we are and what we offer and to understand that they can be part of ending a family’s homelessness and the potential impact that will have on future generations. The community engagement process must cover multiple facets, as access to information must be presented in numerous ways — from social media and website updates to personal property tours, customized letters and board member connections. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to donor engagement.

Q4. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to new professionals or emerging leaders today?

Pat: Allow yourself the time to discover what truly ignites your passion.

Q5. Last year, your organization participated in NLC’s sustainability cohort, which is a small group learning environment where 10 nonprofit organizations worked together with their leaders to strengthen strategic decision-making models by aligning impact and profitability. Tell us about your experience and how, if at all, you and your team are thinking differently about planning as a result.

Pat: Participating in the sustainability cohort through NLC has been a fantastic opportunity. We’ve already made decisions based on what we’ve learned. Moving forward, it will impact future decisions about the programs we offer, the services we provide, funding streams we pursue and more. It forced us (in a good way) to think critically about the financial viability and mission impact of our current programs and services and how those elements must be at the forefront as we plan for the future. We’re embedding the strategic decision-making model we learned through the program in our organizational goals for 2020. I also had the opportunity to attend Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management program last summer, and we’ve added what I learned there to our current planning efforts.

Q6. When you’re not working with your team to help women and families in need, what are you most passionate about in your everyday life?

Pat: I’m passionate about physical activity and strive to integrate cardio exercise into my schedule at least five days a week to improve my physical and mental health. Throughout my long career in the nonprofit sector, exercise has always been a huge stress reliever. Plus, as an introvert, taking those long solitary walks is how I re-energize.

Additionally, my husband and I head to Longboat Key whenever we can get a few days away. It’s our happy place. We also enjoy a round of golf when time allows.

Q7. What’s the best book you’ve read recently? 

Pat: I’m an avid reader, mostly fiction mysteries or fun beach reads. I just finished reading “The Less They Know About Us” by Axton Betz-Hamilton. It’s a true-crime memoir about how a devastating and mysterious identity theft affected a woman and her parents.

Q8. What’s the best movie or Netflix/Amazon Prime show you’ve watched recently?

Pat: I’m mostly watching whatever is on TV to get me through a workout on the stationary bike or rowing machine.

Q9. Finish this sentence: If I weren’t the CEO of Dawning Family Services, I would be ______________.

Pat: I would be the owner or general manager of a professional sports team. I grew up watching sports with my Dad, and being connected with a sports team as an owner or general manager is a fun fantasy.

Q10. What’s something interesting about you that most people don’t know?

Pat: I am an only child, a former lifeguard, a Pastor’s wife, a dog lover with a 165-pound English Mastiff named Boo, and a native New Yorker who lived in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village and the Bronx, as well as “upstate” Chester.

I also spent several years living and working in New Jersey. In 2001, I was working on West 14th Street in New York City, where I watched the 9/11 terrorist attack unfold from my office window. My office was about one mile away from the World Trade Center and I can remember exactly where I was and who I was speaking to when the first plane hit. I watched the buildings collapse. It was surreal and something that only those who personally witnessed the attack can fully understand. The terrifying events from that day and the tragically sad and scary days that followed have left an indelible mark on my life.

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